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Viking Flights of Fiction
Summer 2011
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White Heat

A Novel
M. J. McGrath

"A riveting Arctic mystery that marks the fiction debut of a 'wickedly talented' writer." (The New York Times) 

Half Inuit and half outsider, Edie Kiglatuk is the best guide in her corner of the Arctic. But as a woman, she gets only grudging respect from the elders who rule her isolated community on Ellesmere Island. When a man is shot and killed while out on an "authentic" Arctic adventure under her watch, the murder attracts the attention of police sergeant Derek Palliser. As Edie sets out to discover what those tourists were really after, she is shocked by the suicide of someone very close to her. Though these events are seemingly unrelated, Edie's Inuit hunter sensibility tells her otherwise. With or without Derek's help, she is determined to find the key to this connection—a search that takes her beyond her small village, and into the far reaches of the tundra.

White Heat is a stunning debut novel set in an utterly foreign culture amid an unforgiving landscape of ice and rock, of spirit ancestors and never-rotting bones. A suspense-filled adventure story that will captivate fans of Henning Mankell's bestselling mysteries, this book marks the start of an exciting new series.

M. J. McGrath is an award-winning journalist and the author of The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal. She was awarded the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for best British writer under thirty-five, and currently lives in London.

As she set a chip of iceberg on the stove for tea, Edie Kiglatuk mulled over why it was that the hunting expedition she was leading had been so spectacularly unsuccessful. For one thing, the two men she was guiding were lousy shots. For another, Felix Wagner and his sidekick Andy Taylor hadn't seemed to care if they made a kill nor not. Over the past couple of days they'd spent half their time gazing at maps and writing in notebooks. Maybe it was just the romance of the High Arctic, they were after, the promise of living authentically in the wild with the Eskimo, like the expedition brochure promised. Still, she thought, they but they wouldn't be living long if they couldn't bring down something to eat.

She poured the boiling berg water into a thermos containing qungik, which white people called Labrador tea, and set aside the rest for herself. You had to travel more than 3000 kilometres south from Unmingmak Nuna, Ellesmere Island, where they were now, to find qungik growing on the tundra, but for some reason southerners thought Labrador tea was more authentic, so it was what she always served to her hunting clients. For herself, she preferred Soma brand English Breakfast, brewed with iceberg water, sweetened with plenty of sugar and enriched with a knob of seal blubber. In any case, what really mattered was not the kind of tea as the fact that it was brewed with melted berg. A client once told her that in the south, the water had been through the bowels of dinosaurs before it even reached the faucet, whereas berg water had lain frozen and untouched by animal or human being pretty much since time began. Just one of the reasons, Edie guessed, that southerners were prepared to pay tens of thousands of dollars to come up this far north. In the case of Wagner and Taylor, it certainly wasn't for the hunting.

Some time soon these two were about to get a deal more High Arctic authenticity than they'd bargained for. Not that they knew it yet. While Edie had been fixing tea, the wind had changed; squally easterlies were now sweeping in from the Greenlandic ice cap, suggesting a blizzard was on its way. Not imminently, but quite soon. There was still plenty time enough to fill the flasks with tea and get back to the gravel beach where Edie had left the two men sorting out their camp.

She threw another chunk of berg into the can and while the water was heating, she reached into her pack for her wedge of igunaq and cut off a few slices of the fermented walrus gut. The chewing of igunaq took some time, which was part of the point of igunaq, and as Edie worked the stuff between her teeth she allowed her thoughts to return to the subject of money and from there to stepson, Joe Inukpuk, who was the chief reason she was out here in the company of two men who couldn't shoot and one of whom, the tall, skinny fellow, the sidekick Taylor, was also a particular pain in the ass. Guiding paid better than the teaching that took up the remainder of her time, and Joe needed money if he was to get his nurse's qualification. He couldn't expect to get any help from Sammy, his father and Edie's ex, or from his mother Minnie, so the money was going have to come from Edie. Edie didn't spook easily—it took a lot to frighten an ex-polar bear hunter - but it scared her just how badly she wanted Joe to be able to do his nursing training. The Arctic was full of qalunaat professionals; white doctors, white nurses, lawyers, engineers and there was nothing wrong with most of them, but it was time Inuit produced their own professional class. Joe was certainly smart enough and he seemed committed. If she was thrifty and lucky with clients, she thought she could probably save enough this coming summer to put him through the first year of school. Guiding hunting expeditions was no big deal, like going out on the land with a couple of toddlers in tow. She already knew every last glacier, fiord or esker for five hundred miles around better than she knew the contours of her own body. And no one knew better than Edie how to hunt.

The bit of berg had melted and she was unscrewing the top of the first thermos when a sharp, whipping crack cut through the gloom and so startled her that she dropped the flask. The hot liquid instantly vaporised into a plume of ice crystals, which trembled ever so slightly in disrupted air. The hunter in her knew that sound, the precise, particular pop of 7mm ammunition fired from hunting rifle, something not unlike the Remington 700s her clients were carrying.

She squinted across the sea ice, hoping to a clue as to what had happened, but her view of the beach was obscured by the berg. Up ahead, to the east of the beach, the tundra stared blankly back, immense and uncompromising. A gust of wind whipped frost smoke off the icepack. She felt a surge of irritation. What the hell did the qalunaat think they were doing when they were supposed to be setting up camp? Firing at game? Given their lack of enthusiasm for the shoot, that seemed unlikely. Maybe a bear had come too close and they were letting off a warning shot, though if that were the case, it was odd that her bear dog, Bonehead, hadn't picked up the scent and started barking. A dog as sensitive to bear as Bonehead could scent a bear a couple of kilometres away. There was nothing for it but to investigate. Until they got back to the settlement at Autisaq, the men were officially her responsibility and these days, Edie Kiglatuk took her responsibilities seriously.

She retrieved the flask, impatient with herself for having dropped it and spilled the water, then, checking her rifle, began lunging at her usual, steady, pace through deep drift towards the snowmobile. As she approached, Bonehead, who was tethered to the trailer, lifted his head and flapped his tail. Definitely no bear he could smell. Edie gave the animal a pat and tied in her cooking equipment. As she was packing the flasks under the tarp, a sharp, breathless cry flew past and echoed out over the sea ice and Bonehead began to bark. In an instant, Edie felt her neck stiffen and a thudding started up in her chest.

Someone began shouting for help. The voice sounded like it belonged to the tall, skinny one. Fool had already forgotten the advice she'd given them to stay quiet when they were out on the land. Up here, shouting could bring down a wall of ice or an avalanche of powder snow. It could alert a passing bear. She considered calling out to him to stop hollering, but she was downwind from the hunters and knew her voice wouldn't carry.

Hissing to Bonehead to shut up, to herself she said: 'Ikuliaq!' Stay calm!

One of the men must have had an accident. It wasn't uncommon. In the twelve years she'd been guiding southern hunters, Edie had seen more of those than there are char in a spawn pond; puffed up egos, in the Arctic for the first time, laden down with self-importance and high-tech kit, neither of which they really knew how to handle, thinking it was going to be just like the duck shoot in Iowa they went on last Thanksgiving or the New Year's deer cull in Wyoming. Then they got out on the sea ice and things didn't seem quite so easy. If the bears didn't spook them, then the blistering cold, the scouring winds, the ferocious sun and the roar of the ice pack usually did the job. They'd stave off their fear with casual bravado and booze and that was when the accidents began.

She set the snowbie going and made her way around the iceberg and through a ridge of tuniq, slabby pressure ice. The wind was up now and blowing ice crystals into the skin around her eyes. When she pulled on her snowgoggles, the crystals migrated to the sensitive skin around her mouth. She felt less like a human being than one of those voodoo dolls she'd seen on TV. So long as no one had been seriously wounded, she told herself, they could all just to sit out the storm and wait for help to arrive once the weather had calmed. She'd put up a snowhouse to keep them cosy and she had a first aid kit and enough knowledge to be able to use it.

—from White Heat

release date: August 2011